July 20, 2009
NEW JERSEY DIVISION OF YOUTH AND FAMILY SERVICES, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
IN THE MATTER OF THE GUARDIANSHIP OF Z.M.H. AND T.A.J.H., MINORS.
On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Essex County, No. FG-07-84-08.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Decided June 18, 2009
Submitted May 19, 2009
Reconsideration granted July 14, 2009.
Argued telephonically July 14, 2009
Before Judges Wefing and LeWinn.
E.H. appeals a trial court judgment terminating her parental rights to two of her children, Z.H. and T.H. After reviewing the record in light of the contentions advanced on appeal, we affirm.
Z.H. was born on December 28, 2003, T.H. on October 29, 2005. The New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services ("DYFS") removed the children from E.H.'s care on October 20, 2006, when Z.H. was not quite three years old and T.H. just one year old. E.H. herself was eighteen years old; she was twenty years of age at trial.
The removal was prompted by a report to DYFS that E.H. had been involved in a street fight at approximately one o'clock in the morning in the presence of T.H. DYFS learned that E.H. was homeless and jobless and that T.H. had an untreated burn on her heel. E.H. was pregnant at the time with her third child and she told the DYFS caseworker that she had been fighting with the new girlfriend of the father of her unborn child.*fn1 T.H. was placed with her paternal grandmother, V.A., where she remains. Z.H. was placed with her maternal grandmother, B.H., with whom E.H. was herself living at the time.
Following this removal, DYFS provided a variety of services to E.H., including parenting classes, anger management classes, counseling and drug abuse evaluations. DYFS also referred E.H. to the appropriate welfare office for assistance in locating housing. By the time this matter was tried, in June 2008, E.H. still did not have a permanent residence, but was staying at the apartment of a cousin. Nor had she completed the parenting or anger management classes.
DYFS also arranged to have Dr. Mark Singer perform a psychological evaluation of E.H. and a bonding evaluation of E.H. and the two children. Dr. Singer saw E.H. on two occasions, on December 12, 2006, and on March 14, 2008. Following his initial evaluation, Dr. Singer's recommendations included that E.H. participate in individual psychotherapy, parenting skills training and anger management. She had not complied with these recommendations by the time of the second evaluation.
In his report prepared following the second evaluation, Dr. Singer noted that he had asked E.H. if she knew why she was there. She responded that she did not want to be there and considered it "bull." E.H. completed several tests for Dr. Singer, including the Million Clinical Multiaxial Inventory -III. Dr. Singer stated in his report that her test results suggest that she has a personality style consistent with Narcissistic Personality Disorder with schizoid and self-defeating features. Such a personality style would characteristically be found in an individual who has significant difficulty acknowledging and responding to the needs of others, who has little desire for meaningful social contact, and tends to focus excessively on painful experiences. Such an individual is likely to have an inflated sense of self-worth.
Following this second psychological evaluation, Dr. Singer proceeded to conduct a bonding evaluation of E.H. with Z.H. and T.H. Dr. Singer's report of this bonding evaluation included the following:
The bonding data clearly indicate that [E.H.] has significant difficulty responding to the demands placed upon her as a parent to [Z.H.] and [T.H.]. In addition, the behaviors of these children were not consistent with the behaviors commonly observed between securely attached children and an appropriate parental attachment figure.
While the children intellectually identify [E.H.] as  "mommy," their behavior clearly indicate[s] that, as previously noted, they have not come to view [E.H.] as being a consistent parental figure in their lives. In addition, [E.H.'s] behavior suggests that she has not, [and] can not appropriately respond to the needs of these children.
The totality of the data suggest[s] that, within a reasonable degree of psychological certainty, neither child would likely experience significant and enduring harm should their relationship with their mother be severed. As previously noted, the data does not suggest that these children have come to view [E.H.] as being a consistent parental figure in their lives. The loss [o]f this figure is not likely to cause significant and enduring harm to either child.
While [E.H.] may love her children, the totality of the data suggest[s] that, within a reasonable degree of psychological certainty, she continues to lack the skills and resources needed to parent these 2 children and is not likely to develop these skills in the foreseeable future. This is consistent with [E.H.'s] self-reported refusal to resume parenting skills training and is consistent with her overall defensiveness. It is also noted that [E.H.] has had significant time and opportunity to make meaningful changes in her life. The data suggest that she has been unable to do so and will not likely do so in the foreseeable future.
Dr. Singer echoed these conclusions in his testimony at trial. He explained that a bonding evaluation considers not just the emotional attachment of a child to a parent but the attachment of the parent to the child; bonding, he said, is a two-way street. He noted that Z.H. and T.H. "are at the age where permanency and consistency [are] extremely, extremely important." He expanded upon this concept.
Q: Does the data indicate whether or not the termination of parental rights is in the best interest of the children?
A: Well, certainly, based upon the data these children are at the age where permanency and consistency [are] extremely, extremely important. You know, all children require consistency. Here, we're talking about, you know, very young children between the -- you know, age 2, age 4.
Asked whether E.H. was capable of providing that permanency, Dr. Singer responded that she had been unable to provide it in the past and was unlikely to be able to provide it in the foreseeable future.
E.H. testified on her own behalf but did not offer any expert testimony to counter that of Dr. Singer. Asked why she had not completed the parenting skills classes, she responded, "Because I didn't feel like it." In her testimony she complained about delays in receiving her monthly bus pass from DYFS. She was asked if she had ever gone to the DYFS office to pick up her bus pass; she responded it was not her responsibility to do that.
At the conclusion of the trial, the trial court gave a brief oral decision, finding in favor of termination. The trial court later gave an extensive written opinion, summarizing the evidence presented at trial and analyzing that evidence within the legal framework of N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1(a) and In re Guardianship of K.H.O., 161 N.J. 337 (1999). It concluded that DYFS had established all four prongs of the statutory test by clear and convincing evidence and entered judgment.
E.H.'s Appellant's counsel urged in oral argument that DYFS had not satisfied the first element, endangerment to her children's safety, health or development. We disagree.
We note that these four statutory criteria are not discrete compartments but, rather, they "relate to and overlap with one another to provide a comprehensive standard that identifies a child's best interests." New Jersey DYFS v. G.L., 191 N.J. 596, 606-07 (2007) (quoting In re K.H.O., 161 N.J. 337, 348 (1997)).
E.H. appears to contend that DYFS's proofs were insufficient with respect to the first prong because she did not physically beat her children or leave them alone to fend for themselves. Proof of physical injury, or the existence of a significant risk of such harm, is not an essential element of the first prong.
E.H.'s conduct in not securing medical attention for T.H.'s burn, and in exposing T.H. to a street fight at one o'clock in the morning was a clear indication of her inability to protect her children. Her conduct during her interviews with Dr. Singer clearly evidenced her inability to provide a safe and nurturing environment for her children.
The trial court's remarks to which E.H.'s counsel points may go to the historical roots of E.H.'s problems. They do not lessen the imperative to protect her children from the same result.
Having reviewed this record, we are satisfied that judgment should be affirmed essentially for the reasons stated by Judge Rothschild in his written opinion of June 20, 2008.